International Women’s Day (IWD), observed each year on March 8th, is a celebration of the cultural, economic, political, and social achievements of women worldwide. While celebrations for both National and International Women’s Day have been held globally since the early 20th century, the movement to officially recognize International Women’s Day did not gain momentum until the mid-to-late 1900s. Thanks in part to a resurgence of support for the day and its celebrations, in 1977 the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed March 8th as an official holiday for women’s rights, thus establishing International Women’s Day as we know it today.
At Brown & Brown Absence Services Group, we are proud to recognize the women across our organization. In honor of IWD, we introduce three of our women leaders as they reflect on their individual journeys and what it means to be a leader, while providing advice for other women who are following their own career path.
Jonna Demeo, Director of Marketing
Jonna joined Brown & Brown in 2018 when Professional Disability Associates (PDA) was acquired by The Advocator Group (now, Brown & Brown Absence Services Group). Starting her career in disability claims management, Jonna soon transitioned to marketing. Her experience as PDA’s Marketing Manager provided Jonna with the opportunity to extensively evolve her skillset and grow in the areas of graphic design, leadership, and marketing. Upon joining Brown & Brown, Jonna worked as the Brand & Design Manager, where she was responsible for the visual identity of five individual brands. More recently, she played an integral role in the rebrand of those five companies into Brown & Brown Absence Services Group, cementing her transition into the Director of Marketing.
What advice would you give to others who are considering what career path to take?
While there is a lot I could say here, I’ll try to boil it down to three:
- Your career won’t be a straight line. It’s likely that you’ll begin your career in a job that isn’t your dream job. In my experience, the easiest way to move up is to first do your best in whatever job you have currently. Once you’ve mastered your role, start looking at what opportunities are around you that will help you grow your skills and meet the right people to take your career in the direction you want. Don’t be afraid to take a job that is a lateral move or take on a project in another department. Once people see your initiative, new opportunities are bound to come around.
- If you say you are going to do something, do it. Make a list or set a reminder – whatever you need to do to keep your tasks straight. When your peers and leaders have confidence in you and trust that you’ll get the job done, you’ll likely be given more latitude to take on greater responsibilities, thus paving the way for career growth.
- Do your best work every single day. Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, don’t cut corners even when you think no one will notice. This advice ties into both of the above points – by doing your best work every single day and paying very close attention to the details, your leaders will take notice.
What motivates you as a leader? How do you motivate your team?
Empowerment. This goes both ways – I’m most motivated when I feel empowered by those around me to get the job done on my terms and when I can empower my team to do the same. Empowerment takes trust though; it isn’t something everyone can have in their job and if it’s compromised in any way, it can be really hard to get back. It all goes back to doing your best work – when your proud of your work and your teammates are proud of theirs, everybody wins.
What are some challenges you’ve faced as a female leader?
As a professional and a mom to two young kids, balancing work and family will always be a challenge. I’ve found the way to ease that challenge is through finding a company, job, and leader that provides you with flexibility. Flexibility isn’t just given; you have to ask for it and clearly communicate what you feel you need to be able to give your best self to your family and to your career.
I’ve had the chance to work for a company that has allowed me to build my career alongside building a family. I’ve been afforded a flexible schedule and the ability to work remotely even before the pandemic, while simultaneously being given high profile work opportunities that allowed me to grow as a leader.
Many women fear they’ll be treated differently or be given fewer opportunities if they ask for an a-typical schedule, and unfortunately this is the case for some. There can be a stigma around being granted a flexible schedule, as though the person is not working as hard as everyone else, but I’ve found it’s quite the opposite. When you have an a-typical schedule, you buckle down during your dedicated time and produce the same quality work as someone working a conventional schedule.
My career path demonstrates that flexibility doesn’t have to come at the expense of career growth, and although I recognize this isn’t possible for everyone, I hope that by sharing this, more people will feel empowered to ask for what they need from their company and eventually more will get it.
Kelle Farris, Team Lead, Technical Claim Consultant
Kelle had been working in insurance for nearly twenty years when she joined PDA shortly before they were acquired in 2018. Throughout that time, Kelle spent many years as a Call Center Representative and Long-Term Disability Analyst, acquiring a skillset of effective communication, issue resolution, and workload balance. Along the way, Kelle took on additional responsibilities including training and mentoring, something that eventually led to her piloting the role of “designated mentor.” Upon coming to work at Brown & Brown, Kelle transitioned back into the role of an individual contributor, until a new Team Lead position was created. Since being promoted to Team Lead, Kelle has been able to collaborate with teammates across the organization and return to the fulfilling position of mentoring and motivating others.
What advice would you give to other women who are considering what career path to take?
Do not let self-doubt get in the way of moving forward in your career. As women we have a fear of being judged and making mistakes. We have a habit of looking for external validation. Let the validation come from within. When a career opportunity presents itself, reflect on it, and ask “What is the worst thing that can happen?”
What does being a leader mean to you?
I find value in the teachings of Brené Brown. She defines a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential… It’s about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there and lean into courage.” This definition is who I want to be as a leader. Listening to others, not being quick to react, but truly listening, cultivating a person’s potential, being truthful when delivering a message, and being enthusiastic about the task at hand, are all traits that I believe make a great leader.
Mia Olivero, Manager of Infrastructure
Mia began her Brown & Brown journey in 2010 when she joined Crowe, Paradis & Albren (later known as The Advocator Group). Beginning as a Help Desk/Network Specialist, Mia was keen to learn more about the “behind the scenes” of the company and began to take over tasks involving the company’s Information Technology (IT) infrastructure. After earning her CompTIA Server+ Certification, Mia expanded her responsibilities over multiple offices and began regulating the company’s IT environment. While she has been playing a vital role on the IT team since beginning her career at Brown & Brown, it was her knowledge and expansive skillset that ensured the successful transition of the entire Brown & Brown team to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic. Today she continues to utilize her talents, bringing innovation to the infrastructure of the business.
Was the field of IT always something you have been interested in?
I have always been drawn to fixing things – starting when, as a kid, I used a screwdriver to remove a VHS tape that was stuck in the VCR. In middle school, I was in a program that gave a limited number of students laptops for the academic year, so I spent my free time exploring Microsoft Office products then sharing the cool things I learned. In high school, I spent time upgrading my personal desktop computer just for fun. It was not until after watching the TV show “Birds of Prey”, however, that I realized I wanted to pursue a career in IT. The Oracle, a vigilante who uses her computer skills to fight crime, showed me that representation in the media matters, and I wanted to be as cool as her! My immigration status prevented me from attending college and working in a corporate environment, so after participating in a one-year course specializing in basic IT skills called Year Up in Boston, I began to volunteer at nonprofits teaching seniors everyday computer skills. Upon resolving my immigration status issues, I moved to a call center environment. The experience was great, but I knew I wanted to be on the field and work with servers. I responded to an ad for Crowe, Paradis, & Albren, and the rest, as they say, is history.
IT is typically perceived to be a male-dominated field. What is it like to be a woman in an industry with that perception?
When I go to technology related seminars, I am usually the only woman there. When I speak up at these seminars, I often feel like all eyes are on me. When I have attended women centered IT conferences, attendees often worked at the call center helpdesk, on coding, or with project management – it is rare to see women managing servers or network systems. I often am met with surprise and intrigue when I tell people my title. But I am more surprised that they are surprised!
What does being a leader mean to you?
Being a leader is sharing in a common vision and participating in that accomplishment. Being a leader is challenging a colleague without assigning them tasks that they cannot handle. Being a leader is providing tools and guidance for success. Being a leader is having the courage to change how things are done so that it benefits everyone. Being a leader is helping someone be accountable and acknowledge their achievements. Being a leader is being a quality example.
Have you faced any barriers in being a female leader?
Absolutely. There were jobs I was technically and professionally qualified for but wasn’t offered the position because I dressed too feminine during the interview process. In my next interview, I dressed more masculine and I was hired. I know it sounds anecdotal, but I remember the look of skepticism on their faces when I said I had no problem lifting equipment. It is hard to convince people that you are willing to carry technology equipment when you are wearing heels.
We are proud to be an organization with talented women teammates at all levels of our business. Today and every day we honor and thank them for their contributions to the success of our company. Thank you, Jonna, Kelle, and Mia for sharing your stories and inspiring the next group of women leaders in our business!